THE FLUTE NERD blog

Self-Assessment to Accelerate Your Flute Practice

Self-assessment is the best thing we can do in our flute practice to improve quicker, but it can be surprisingly hard to strike the balance between criticism and compassion

I’ve said it before, but practicing the flute is not just about practicing diligently but practicing intelligently, and one the most important aspects of practicing smartly is learning how to properly and objectively assess your own playing.

But this is surprisingly hard to do well. As creatives, we far too easily slip from constructive, objective criticism into damaging negative self-talk.

So I like to think of self-assessment a bit like learning to become your own teacher. Think about what a teacher might point out as areas for improvement in your playing. (For this it’s important to imagine the best kind of teacher, encouraging and supportive while still helpful, not one of the Whiplash variety).  

In this blog, I’ll first have a look at why self-assessment is so important in your flute practice and then offer some handy techniques that will help you thinking more critically about your playing and explore why there’s a fine balance between being constructively and harmfully critical.

Learning to Assess Your Own Playing

Learning to listen to and evaluate your own playing is one of the most important skills you’ll need in order to see improvement. Of course this is important for those who are learning on their own, but even if you have a private teacher (or a space like the Flute Nerd Lab) and are getting regular feedback on your playing, if you can’t approach your playing objectively, you’ll struggle to effectively implement any suggested changes.

This introspective focus on listening and evaluating will help you identify your specific areas for improvement, allowing you to tailor your flute practice routine to address these needs directly. While I’ll discuss this in more detail below, I would still like to take a quick second to stress that learning to think critically about our own playing doesn’t mean you only focus on your weaknesses. It’s about learning to listen to our own playing objectively, identifying weaknesses and also acknowledging your strengths.

How to Assess Your Own Playing

Here are some tips to help you effectively and objectively assess your own playing.

Record your playing: Record yourself regularly, focusing on different pieces or techniques. Listening back provides a clear, unvarnished reflection of your playing, highlighting areas that need attention and those where you shine. When playing we have to juggle thinking about so many different things, that we don’t have the brain space to really listen. But when we listen back to a recording, it is much easier to spot things that either went well or need some work.

Take emotion out of the equation: As someone who was the John McEnroe of flute (I didn’t ever threw my flute in anger, but boy, did I get close sometimes), I get that it can be hard to keep the emotions in check. It’s already very easy to let that emotional self-talk creep in as we start listening more carefully to our playing (“I suck at this” “I never get this right” etc). But I’m going to say this nice and loud: Your ability is not a reflection of your self-worth (every single one of us­­­ including myself needs poster on wall of their practice room that says this).

The more we pander to our emotions, the more likely we aren’t really assessing what’s actually going on, and the less likely we’ll be able to fix it, thus feeding right back into that emotion. And round and round we go. Instead, try to focus on tangible aspects of your playing (if you mess up that run, where does it go wrong and how, etc). By concentrating on concrete facts rather than subjective feelings, you can more easily identify areas for improvement.

Hold yourself to realistic expectations: Remind yourself of where you are in your journey and adjust your expectations accordingly. How long have you been playing? Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t sound like Denis Bourakiov or have fingers as fast as Jasmine Choi if you’ve only been playing a couple of years. How much time are you able to find for practicing throughout the week? If you don’t have much time to practice, you CAN still get better, but it will be slower.

Adopt a growth mindset: This silly psychology jargon just means that we view challenges not as personal failings but as steps on the path to growth. This is an approach that recognises that it takes work to succeed, that success if always possible with time and effort, and that our creative powers are not limited and are always developing. Read more about growth mindsets in this post.

Reflect on performance experiences: Every performance, whether in a concert hall, classroom, or the privacy of your home, offers us valuable lessons. Reflect on these experiences, noting moments of comfort and discomfort, success and areas for improvement. Consider what felt easy, what challenged you, and how you responded to those challenges.

Finding the Balance

Self-assessment requires a delicate balance of compassionate criticism. It’s about learning to objectively assess your playing without letting emotions cloud your judgment. This means celebrating your progress and acknowledging your strengths as much as identifying your weaknesses. The goal is not to dwell on shortcomings but to recognise them as opportunities for growth and learning.

Cultivating this balanced approach to self-assessment allows you to create a flute practice routine that is not only focused and efficient but also kind and supportive of your musical journey.

Constructive criticism vs negative self-talk

As you start developing your ear and self-assessment skills, I feel it’s worth taking a quick moment to stress that there is a very fine line between constructive criticism and harmful negative self-talk.

A certain level of self-critique is essential for identifying areas of improvement, but it is just as important not to be overly harsh on yourself. And knowing where that line is drawn can be hard to determine.

In fact, there are studies that show that excessive self-criticism is linked to decreased motivation, poorer self-control, and heightened procrastination. Rather than propelling progress, self-criticism actually triggers a state of inhibition in the brain, hindering your ability to take decisive action towards achieving your goals.

So what’s the difference between self-criticism and self-assessment? It’s the mindset and intention behind them. The former is often a closed or fixed mindset. It is often emotional and general, and is self-limiting (not allowing room for growth or progress).

For example, here are some examples of self-criticism in the practice room:  

“I suck at this piece.”

“I can’t ever get that run right.”

“My sound is awful.”

“I’ll never be able to make that in one breath.”

On the other hand, effective self-assessment is much more open and allows for growth and progress. It recognises that it takes work to succeed, that success if always possible with time and effort, and that our creative powers are not limited and are always developing.

I’d say there are two important factors to consider that will help you avoid the criticism and find a more constructive way to progress:

  1. Always aim to be as specific as possible. You can’t ‘suck at this piece’, you might find certain aspects of it difficult, so identify what those are.
  2. Rephrase any statement to allow for future improvement. Using words like ‘can’t’ or ‘never’ have the psychological effect of closing off your brain. Instead of saying “I’ll never be able to get that run right” say something like “I struggle with this run, particularly getting to the E, but I have some exercises that should help with that.” It recognises your limitation while allowing for future growth.

For more information on fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets, check out my other blog.

The art of compassionate criticism

Always approach your practice like a curious scientist, and imagine each exercise is an experiment. This way you give yourself room for trial and error.

By staying curious in your practice (for example, asking yourself why you made a mistake rather than beating yourself up over it) means you can be objective and acknowledge when things aren’t going well but it will also allow you to see those mistakes as an opportunity to learn and explore.

Don’t let mistakes or stumbling blocks set you back. Instead, just acknowledge them, try to figure out (objectively!) why they happened, and try again.

Progress, not perfection

Remember that practice is ALWAYS about progress, not perfection. As you begin to tune more intentionally into your playing make sure you recognise and celebrate that progress. There is no end point to learning the flute; we’re all only every striving to be better than yesterday.

Further Help  

Learning to approach your practice more intentionally and objectively is one of the fastest ways to progress. Being able to self-evaluate your own playing is super important, sometimes it’s worth getting some outside help in the form of a teacher or peers.

A good teacher should be able to not only help you identify your areas of improvement, but to equip you the tools to refine your self-assessment skills so that you can get more out of your practice time between lessons. If you’re interested in lessons with me, feel free to visit my lessons page for more information.

Additionally, connecting with a supportive community of fellow flutists can provide additional assistance. That’s exactly why I created the Flute Nerd Lab – a learning platform and community designed for flutists of all levels. Inside this community, you’ll receive personalised feedback on your recordings, engage in practice challenges, and connect with like-minded individuals. Join us today!

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Alexandra Petropoulos

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Self-assessment is the best thing we can do in our flute practice to improve quicker, but it can be surprisingly hard to strike the balance between criticism and compassion